Lenoir County: Fish Stew

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What comes to mind when you hear the words “Eastern North Carolina”? Do you think of the famous vinegar based BBQ, slaw and football? Or perhaps memories of passing fields that stretch for miles with corn, collards, tobacco and okra while on your way to the beach? Whatever crosses your mind, there’s a pretty good chance food is involved. Lenoir County specifically, has a long, rich history of growing local food. While researching this particular county’s food culture, I had the opportunity to discover some of the state’s finest BBQ, engage with farmers on Saturday mornings at the Lenoir County Farmers Market and interview owners of highly respected restaurants.

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Lenoir County includes Kinston, one of North Carolina’s oldest cities. This city was original named “Kingston” when it was established as the county’s seat in 1762.  Kinston is where the Lenoir County Farmers Market is held on Tuesday evenings and Saturday mornings. Local farmers are eager to exchange stories and favorite recipes, celebrating their homegrown ingredients. Foods such as peaches, pork, okra and collards are just a few of the seasonal choices these farmers have to offer.

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Not only does Kinston have a thriving farmers market but a top NC restaurant destination called Chef and the Farmer. Chef Vivian Howard has gained publicity nationwide with her Peabody award winning TV show, A Chef’s Life. After hearing Chef Howard speak at Meredith College in the spring of 2014, I eagerly awaited the opportunity to experience Lenoir County’s local produce offered at this farm to table restaurant. While spending a day feasting on NC BBQ, fried oysters from the Boiler Room, and succulent curried pork belly from Chef and the Farmer, Elena and I had the pleasure of talking with Chef Vivian Howard and discuss the food culture in Lenoir County. Vivian reminisced about growing up in Deep Run and explained how her mother prepared vegetables and grains to serve as the base of the meal while meat was considered a condiment. Foods such as butter beans, sweet potatoes, home canned peaches from the peach orchard were mealtime favorites, alongside the popular comfort dish, chicken and rice. Her family celebrated Thanksgiving with a whole hog BBQ and enjoyed locally caught fried fish on Fridays. Chef Howard continues to follow the southern food traditions she learned from her family as she creates the seasonal menu for her restaurant.

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We also learned from Chef Howard that Fish Stew has become a Lenoir County favorite and staple in some local’s eyes, serving as a comfort food year round and especially on cold winter days. Just ask any Lenoir County native for their fish stew recipe. They may not reveal the secret family ingredient, but they will make sure to tell you the stew must be layered and not stirred.

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If your wondering where to find this Lenoir County favorite, the fine family at Ken’s Grill & NC BBQ in La Grange, NC makes fish stew available to locals and tourists year round. Ken and his brother David run their father’s famed 1970 establishment offering whole hog BBQ on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays with a side of homemade slaw and hushpuppies. The menu consists of daily specials and various sides from the fryer, but Friday around 11am is when you’ll find a warm bowl of fish stew, served with crispy golden brown hushpuppies and fresh loaf bread available for purchase. Ken advised me to come in early for a bowl of stew, as it sells out quickly.  This fish stew recipe was first prepared in 1980 by Ken’s father-in-law, Mr. Jones, who owned a fish market in Lenoir County. Ms. Kate was the cook who brought that recipe to life time and time again, preparing the stew at Ken’s Grill for decades. Ken chooses the best quality, local NC fish offered by Kinston’s own Reynolds Seafood Company. This family run fish market was started in 1960 and continues to provide the ingredients needed to prepare the stew, including friendly advice on how to layer the pot.

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While you’re in Kinston, you will want to visit Sweetiepies, a new tasty addition to Kinston’s food culture. This cupcakery is owned by Ken’s wife, Teresa. She offers an array of colorful sweet treats that will surely want you coming back for more!

Whether you’re a native of Lenoir County, or passing through on Hwy 70, make sure to stop by these local establishments for a taste of this county’s unique food culture. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed! The recipe below is my variation of Lenoir County fish stew, using of course the freshest local ingredients. And please, Do Not Stir!

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Photos above: paintings and photograph of Reynolds Seafood displayed on store front walls, photograph of menu board at Ken’s BBQ

Fish Stew

Recipe inspired by Chef Vivian Howard, Kinston, NC, Ken’s Grill & NC BBQ, La Grange, NC and Reynolds Seafood, Kinston, NC.

Makes 3 quarts, serves 6-9

Ingredients:

1/4 pound bacon, cut into 1/2″ pieces (Reynolds Seafood)

1, 6 ounce can tomato paste (Reynolds Seafood)

1 large yellow onion, sliced 1/2 inch thick (Lenoir County Farmers Market)

5-6 small-medium red potatoes, quartered (Lenoir County Farmers Market)

Salt, pepper and red pepper flakes to taste

1 pound Rock Fish (Reynolds Seafood)

6 eggs (Cock-A-Doodle Farm, LaGrange, NC from Lenoir County Farmers Market)

Directions:

Fry bacon in skillet. Pour bacon grease and bacon into 6 quart pot, heat on medium-medium low. Layer and add tomato paste, potatoes, onion, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes to pot. DO NOT STIR. Add 6 cups water to cover vegetables. Bring to slow rolling boil over medium heat for 30-45 minutes, until potatoes are tender. Meanwhile, filet fish, removing as many bones as possible. Add fish to pot during last 10 minutes of cooking. DO NOT STIR.

After fish is cooked through, turn heat to medium low. Break eggs on the side of pot, gently place into stew one at a time. Let eggs set for 10 minutes. DO NOT STIR. When ready to serve, use a ladle to reach bottom of pot, scoop upwards to ladle into bowls. Always serve with fresh white loaf bread, just as the Lenoir County locals do.

Resources: Lenoir County North Carolina. About Lenoir County. http://www.co.lenoir.nc.us/history.html Accessed October 11, 2014.

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A Celebration of Summer

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Another holiday is upon us. The last of the “summer” holidays, celebrating the American labor movement. As we head to the beach, mountains or relax at home, this weekend serves as an appropriate time to reflect. I have written about reflecting in the past and feel it is important for mind/body health. Take a minute to reflect and be grateful for everything that has happened over the summer, embrace the change of season that’s about to make its way across the county and focus your mind and body on your goals and ambitions for the last four months of the year.

Last week I started class, however, this semester is different. This is my LAST class of graduate school! Yes, it is true! After four years of balancing work and school, I will have my Masters in Nutrition in December. The experiences I have encountered while completing assignments has molded me into who I am today. I started grad school for the purpose of learning. There was always the question of “What will my practicum project be?” Or “What are you going to do with your degree?” I can say that those questions have been answered along the way and will continue to be as my path unfolds.

If you’ve followed me over the summer, you can imagine how enriching working with Elena from Biscuits and Such has been. Networking with so many amazing people while researching this gorgeous state, becoming even more comfortable and confident in the kitchen with recipe development and developing my voice on social media has opened doors I could only dream about before. This practicum isn’t just a project anymore, it is becoming life!

As summer winds down, (although here in NC it sure doesn’t feel like it!) we’ll be shifting our focus from okra, green beans and tomatoes to sweet potatoes, greens, and apples. Ok, I have to admit I’ve been eating sweet potatoes all summer long, but apples….now that’s a food that proclaims “it’s fall” like no other!

This morning my boyfriend, Michael and I, visited the Lenoir County Farmers Market and saw first hand how the produce is winding down as we start to transition seasons. Peppers were on my mind and luckily there were still a few waiting for me. While I was making the stuffed peppers tonight I realized how my ingredients were from all around NC. The lamb, from Rainbow Meadow Farms purchased from the State Farmers Market in Raleigh. The zucchini and red onion from the Midtown Farmers Market in Raleigh. The rosemary from my backyard. The corn, peppers and tomatoes from Lenoir County Farmers Market in Kinston. This cumulative dish illustrates my summer. Traveling from Raleigh to Kinston every other weekend to visit Michael, shopping at farmers markets most Saturday mornings, and experimenting with flavors, recipes and photography. It has been such a rewarding experience and I am ever so grateful to have this opportunity, while looking forward for what’s to come!

Lamb and Rosemary Stuffed Bell Peppers

Serves 3-4

 Ingredients:

1/2 pound ground lamb

1 medium red onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1-2 sprigs rosemary, minced

4 medium bell peppers – your preference in color

1 ear white corn, boiled 3-5 minutes and cut off the cob

1 medium zucchini, chopped

salt and pepper to taste

cinnamon, dried basil, crushed red pepper to taste

ghee or butter

Optional sauce: Stewed tomatoes using Mother Earth’s Homegrown Beer or tomato based sauce of choice

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.

2. Rinse the peppers and halve, cutting from stem down, discard the core and set in greased baking dish face down. Bake in oven for 15-20 min until soft enough to be pierced with a fork.

3. Meanwhile, heat a medium sauce pan to medium high heat and coat with butter or ghee.

4. Saute the onions, garlic and rosemary until the onions start to turn clear or slightly brown.

5. Add the ground lamb and spices, brown 2-3 minutes.

6. Add zucchini and corn to mixture, turn heat to low for a light simmer. Taste to adjust spices as needed.

7. Once peppers are done, flip over and fill peppers with mixture.

8. Bake in oven for another 3-5 minutes.

9. Enjoy!

Optional sauce: Stewed tomatoes or tomato based sauce of choice

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Food for thought: What is your favorite way to stuff peppers? How are you celebrating Labor Day Weekend?